Six Supreme Court Cases to Watch This Term

Although the entire docket has not yet been set, the next Supreme Court term is already shaping up to be historic, with decisions on abortion protests, legislative prayer, and state affirmative action, just to name a few.

Attorneys for reproductive health-care providers in Texas filed an emergency petition with the Roberts Court Monday morning as a health-care crisis grips the state. United States Supreme Court, Washington, D.C. / Flickr

The United States Supreme Court term begins in October, and while the entire docket has not yet been set, already it’s shaping up to be a historic term, with decisions on abortion protests, legislative prayer, and affirmative action, just to name a few. Here are the key cases we’re keeping an eye on as the term starts up.

1. Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice

The Supreme Court looks poised to re-enter the abortion debate, and it could do so as early as this year if it takes up Cline, the first of the recent wave of state-level restrictions to reach the high court.

Cline involves a challenge to an Oklahoma statute that requires abortion-inducing drugs, including RU-486, to be administered strictly according to the specific Food and Drug Administration labeling despite the fact that new research and best practices make that labeling out of date. Such “off-label” use of drugs is both legal and widespread in the United States as science, standards of care, and clinical practice often supercede the original FDA label on a given drug. In the case of cancer drugs, for example, the American Cancer Society notes that “New uses for [many] drugs may have been found and there’s often medical evidence from research studies to support the new use [even though] the makers of the drugs have not put them through the formal, lengthy, and often costly process required by the FDA to officially approve the drug for new uses.” Off-label use of RU-486 is based on the most recent scientific findings that suggest lower dosages of the drug and higher rates of effectiveness when administered in conjunction with a follow-up drug (Misoprostol). According to trial court findings, the alternative protocols are safer for women and more effective. But, according to the state and defenders of the law, there is great uncertainty about these off-label uses and their safety.

When the issue reached the supreme court of Oklahoma, the court held in a very brief opinion that the Oklahoma statute was facially invalid under Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In Casey, a plurality of justices held that a state may legitimately regulate abortions from the moment of gestation as long as that regulation does not impose an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Later, in Gonzales v. Carhart, a majority of the Supreme Court, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, interpreted Casey to allow state restrictions on specific abortion procedures when the government “reasonably concludes” that there is medical uncertainty about the safety of the procedure and an alternative procedure is available.

Cline, then, could present an important test on the limits of Casey and whether, under Gonzales, the Court will permit states to ban medical abortions. But it’s not entirely clear the Court will actually take up Cline. At the lower court proceedings, the challengers argued that the Oklahoma statute bars the use of RU-486’s follow-up drug (Misoprostol) as well as the use of Methotrexate to terminate an ectopic pregnancy. If so, the statute then bars both any drug-induced abortion and eliminates the preferred method for ending an ectopic pregnancy. Attorneys defending the restriction deny the law has those effects, and do not argue that if it did such restrictions would be constitutional. With this open question of state law—whether the statute prohibits the preferred treatment for ectopic pregnancies—the Supreme Court told the Oklahoma Supreme Court those disputed questions of state law.

So a lot depends on how the Oklahoma Supreme Court proceeds. Should the Oklahoma Supreme Court hold that the Oklahoma statute is unconstitutional because it prohibits the use of Misoprostol and Methotrexate, this case could be over without the Supreme Court weighing in. But if the Oklahoma Supreme Court invalidates the law insofar as it prohibits alternative methods for administering RU-486, the Supreme Court will almost certainly take a look.

2. Town of Greece v. Galloway

The Roberts Court is set to weigh in on the issue of when, and how, government prayer practices can exist without violating the Establishment Clause’s ban on the intermingling of church and state. In Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld Nebraska’s practice of opening each legislative session with a prayer, based largely on an unbroken tradition of that practice dating back to the framing of the Constitution. In Marsh, the Court adopted two apparent limits to a legislative prayer practice: The government may not select prayer-givers based on a discriminatory motive, and prayer opportunities may not be exploited to proselytize in favor of one religion or disparage another.

Prior to 1999, the town of Greece, New York, opened every legislative session with a moment of silence. Then, in 1999 and at the request of the town’s supervisor, the town switched to opening its legislative sessions with a prayer. Nearly all of those prayers were delivered by Christian clergy members and, unlike other city councils, there was no requirement that the prayers be inclusive or non-denominational. City officials selected speakers off a list of local religious leaders provided by the Greece Chamber of Commerce. From 1999 through 2007, Christians delivered every single invocation prayer, in part because the list provided by the area Chamber of Commerce included only Christian religious officials despite the fact that other denominations exist in the community.

The practice was challenged by a group of citizens who argued it violated the Establishment Clause. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit acknowledged that the Town of Greece had not violated either of Marsh’s limits in its practices, but still invalidated the town’s practices. Applying the “reasonable observer” standard drawn from County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, the court concluded that a reasonable observer would view the town as endorsing Christianity over other religions, because its process of composing a list of prayer-givers from clergy within its geographic boundaries and volunteers virtually guaranteed the person delivering the prayer would be a Christian, because most of the prayers contained uniquely Christian references, and because prayer-givers invited participation and town officials participated in the prayers.

The reasonable observer test appears headed for a fall. In County of Alleghany, Justice Kennedy in his dissent criticized the reasonable observer test as insensitive to traditions and unworkable for governments and courts to apply. He argued that religious accommodations are consistent with the Establishment Clause as long as they do not coerce attendance at, or participation in, a religious observance, or directly fund religion. Justice Kennedy’s perspective is an important one. To begin with, the makeup of the Court is different now than the last time it considered these issues. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, for example, and the Court has veered hard to the right. It is conceivable then that the Court could view this case as an opportunity to abandon, or at least reconsider and revise, the reasonable observer test. If so, the decision could affect not only the constitutionality of legislative prayers, but also all religious accommodations, including the public display of religious symbols. It could also offer a glimpse into the Court’s thinking on another religious accommodation likely to come before it this term: the challenges under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the contraception benefit in the Affordable Care Act.

3. McCullen v. Coakley

Regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court ultimately takes up Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, the Court will take up the issue of abortion clinic protests in McCullen v. Coakley, a challenge that looks at the constitutionality of Massachusetts’ clinic buffer zone law.

The last time the Supreme Court looked at the issue of clinic buffer zones was in Hill v. Colorado. In Hill, the Court held that a law limiting protest and “sidewalk counseling” within eight feet of a person entering a health-care facility in order to protect persons entering the facility from unwanted speech did not violate the First Amendment. Critical to the Court’s decision in Hill was its conclusion that the prohibition was content neutral because it arguably prevented both pro-choice and anti-choice speakers from entering the eight-foot zone.

The Massachusetts statute at issue in McCullen takes a different approach to get to the same purpose as the law upheld in Hill. The Massachusetts law prohibits anyone from entering a public sidewalk within 35 feet of a reproductive health-care facility, but exempts from that buffer employees of the facility acting within the scope of employment. The Massachusetts statute raises questions not resolved in Hill, including whether the employee exemption renders the Massachusetts statute content-based, meaning that it places a limitation on free speech depending on the subject matter, since arguably employees can use the exemption to deliver pro-choice messages. The Massachusetts statute differs in two other potentially significant differences also. First it applies only to reproductive health-care facilities, making its abortion-specific purpose more apparent, and has a larger buffer zone, making conversational speech more difficult.

Ultimately, this case may end up being more about whether the Supreme Court sympathizes with anti-abortion protestors rather than the differences between the Massachusetts statute and Hill. In Hill, the justices in the majority were especially sympathetic to the plight of patients who want to undergo a private medical procedure in peace, without being subjected to the emotional turmoil of confrontational protests. The dissenters in Hill now find themselves in the conservative majority under the Roberts Court, a fact that could drive the outcome here. In Hill, conservative justices like Antonin Scalia ignored the plight of patients and instead accused the majority of creating a special brand of reduced First Amendment protection for abortion protesters that would be viewed as intolerable if applied to any other speaker. And that perspective shift—from concerns over patients’ rights to concerns over protesters’ rights—could make all the difference in this case.

4. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

If you thought Citizens United was bad, just wait until you hear about McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC). In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court held that restrictions on independent campaign expenditures that prohibited corporations from direct election spending violate the First Amendment. As bad as that decision was, it left intact the underlying holding in Buckley v. Valeo that Congress may limit campaign contributions on the reasoning that limits on campaign contributions are thought to impinge less on First Amendment freedoms and have a stronger nexus to preventing corruption.

At issue in McCutcheon is this underlying holding in Buckley when the Court considers the constitutionality of federal aggregate contribution limits—that is, the total amount that can be contributed to all candidates, party committees, or political action committees (PACs). Those are in contrast to base limits on candidate contributions that set limits on individual donations. In Buckley, the Court summarily upheld aggregate contribution limits as a means of preventing circumvention of the base limits on candidate contributions. The rationale was that, without aggregate limits, persons could circumvent the base limits on candidate contributions through massive un-earmarked contributions to political committees likely to contribute to a person’s favored candidate.

The Roberts Court appears eager to take up aggregate limits because they limit not only the amount a person can contribute to a candidate, but the number of persons to whom a person can make a full base-level contribution. These kinds of restrictions appear all but certain to fall in a post-Citizens United world. At the time Buckley was decided, there were no base limits on party committees or PACs. Now there are. If the Supreme Court feels those new base limits adequately address the risk of circumvention that justified Buckley’s upholding aggregate contribution limits, then by Supreme Court logic there’s no reason to keep the aggregate limits in place.

The Obama administration is defending the aggregate limits, arguing it is just as easy now to circumvent the base limits as when Buckley was decided, which is why the aggregate limits are necessary. Given the slow unwind of campaign finance law by the Roberts Court, it seems unlikely they will be persuaded by the Obama administration’s reasoning.

5. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

If the Roberts Court appears set on dismantling individual contribution limits, it also appears set to strike another blow to affirmative action plans. Last summer, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Court held that universities have limited authority to consider race in admissions to further diversity. At issue in Schuette is whether or not Michigan violated the Equal Protection Clause by amending its constitution to prohibit race- and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public university admissions decisions.

In 2006, Michigan voters approved the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), a measure that amended the state constitution to prohibit all use of race in public university admissions, as well as in public contracting and employment. A coalition of African-American student groups, faculty members, and public-sector labor unions immediately challenged the MCRI as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In answering that question, the Court will have to tackle the restricting doctrine. Under the restricting doctrine, a state may not remove authority to decide a racial issue from one political entity and lodge it in another when doing so creates a more burdensome political hurdle. The Court has applied that doctrine only twice, first in Hunter v. Erickson, to invalidate a reallocation of authority over the decision to prohibit racial discrimination in housing, and then in Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1, to invalidate a reallocation of authority over the decision whether to bus students to achieve racial integration in the schools.

The question before the Roberts Court is whether the political restructuring doctrine invalidates the MCRI. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that it did, because affirmative action is a racial issue of particular concern to racial minorities, and it is more difficult for minorities to obtain favorable action through the constitutional amendment process.

In defending the MCRI, Michigan argues the political restructuring doctrine applies to reallocations of authority over measures to ensure equal opportunity, not those that give racial preference. It’s difficult to see the distinction, especially given the connection between graduating college and economic opportunity, but it is a distinction Michigan stands by. Michigan also argues that the political restructuring doctrine should not apply to admission decisions made by unelected university officials because they are not part of any “political process” as envisioned in earlier decisions.

Should the Court accept Michigan’s argument, voters in any state dissatisfied with the affirmative action policies at their state universities could follow Michigan’s lead and vote to eliminate them through constitutional amendment. On the other hand, a decision finding the MCRI did in fact violate equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment would protect current policies from falling victim to voter dissatisfaction like in Michigan.

6. Township of Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action

The Supreme Court is also poised to gut federal housing discrimination protections when it considers whether to limit the federal housing discrimination law to cases of actual and proven bias against racial minorities. Mount Holly, New Jersey, argues it cannot be held liable for housing discrimination for redeveloping a depressed neighborhood and reducing the number of homes that are available to African Americans and Latinos. Specifically, the Roberts Court will examine whether the Fair Housing Act forbids actions by cities or mortgage lenders that have a “discriminatory effect” on racial minorities.

According to census data, Mount Holly has a white majority. The town council decided that one neighborhood of about 330 homes was “in need of redevelopment.” Known as Mount Holly Gardens, this neighborhood was home to most of the Black and Latino residents in the town. The town council then voted to buy all the homes in the Gardens area for prices ranging from $32,000 to $49,000. They were to be replaced with new homes ranging from $200,000 to $250,000.

In 2008, a community group representing the Gardens residents sued the city, arguing that its redevelopment plan was discriminatory and illegal because it would have a disparate impact on low-income African Americans and Latinos. City officials counter that they were not trying to displace minorities—rather, they were trying to improve a blighted part of town, not engage in illegal discrimination. Furthermore, they claim, the Fair Housing Act does not cover these kinds of discrimination claims. Given the Roberts Court’s willingness to severely restrict the scope of other key pieces of civil rights legislation, like Title VII and the Voting Rights Act, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Fair Housing Act is the next to get gutted.

In addition to these high-profile challenges, the Supreme Court will also look at whether individual government workers can be held liable for age discrimination claims, whether or not federal labor laws allow employees to change clothes at work, and the extent of President Obama’s recess appointment powers. In many ways, the Roberts Court is picking up right where it left off last term—with an eye toward narrowing as much as possible the reach and effect of the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement.